I was in oh kay see visiting my sister for a long weekend last weekend, so my podcast-listening schedule got all messed up and I just listened to last week’s This American Life yesterday. Forget the guy who Bruce Springsteened a bus for a couple days and the thirteen-year-old alcoholic, it was Act Two of their program, Act Two, that’s stayed on my mind.
TAL producers Jonathan Goldstein and Sean Cole stumbled upon a Pew Research survey that indicated that when asked to describe in their own words what futuristic invention they’d most like to own, approximately nine percent of Americans say some sort of time-travel device. That’s a lot, right—of all the innumerable, as-yet-uninvented futuristic gadgets the public could think of and want to have, basically one in ten thinks, “Yeah, no, what I want’s a time machine.”
Team Sean-John waxed This-American-Lifeic about the reasons for this—nostalgia, fear, curiosity—and came to a fairly poetic, very This-American-Lifeic conclusion about it. Which I was fine with, though I have to say that for me, it’s a lot simpler than all that.
It’s simply wonder.
Like Sean, I’ve thought a lot about this; “Like,” as he said, “a lot a lot.” At least once a day I want, I long, I yearn to be in some other time and place. Not because I dislike my present circumstances so much—in fact they’re pretty great—but because as vivid as my imagination is, and as much as I love reading, I want, well, more. I want the actual experience. I want to muffle my nose against the actual wet Petersburg snow Golyadkin stamped off his feet on the Izmailovsky Bridge, to smell the actual cannon smoke on the fields of Borodino, to actually feel the cold shock of the Atlantic as I plunge off Forty Foot.
Pics: All Wikimedia Commons
(the left is actually Obukhovskiy Bridge, but it’s basically the same)
There are some historical places I’d like to see—Babylon’s hanging gardens, Atlantis, Achaemenean Persia, basically the entire Levant basically any time before the 20th century, the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution. I’d love to see the ancient Olympic Games (I’d compete only if I could convince them to add a swim race). I’d like to meet Cleopatra, Peter the Great, Ulysses S. Grant, Harriet Tubman, Geronimo, Siddhartha (before and after that whole bodhi tree deal), Cicero, Nelson Mandela, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Collins—I’m firing off the top of my head here, obviously. I mean, the list is endless.
But mostly, I’d like to meet authors. In some cases, I’d like just as much to see where they lived, to poke around their haunts. Or their stomping grounds, rather, before the authors sublimated and those places turned into haunts. One of my favorite places to go and sit and write and drink in New York was the White Horse (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s kinda sorta cliché, but writing by the pint for days on end in Dylan Thomas’s same snug little corner was, at 24, about as cool as The City got for me).
There are so so many ghosts to reanimate, but your attention spans are only so so wide, that I’ve decided to restrict this list to 15. It was done in one sitting and I didn’t get up to look at my bookshelves, not even once, so it’s off the cuff and far far far from definitive. But I can say that these are in the top, say, fifty places I’d set the DeLorean’s dials to if I had the chance.
I hope you’ll add yours, or at least your yays or nays or are you kidding me?s to these.
- Charles Dickens. Specifically, the late 1840s Charles Dickens. I want to go on a few twenty-mile walks with him through London & environs.
- The early 20th century Russian avant-garde. In the Aughts and Teens, before people started disappearing. I want to meet Marina Tsvetaeva before she goes to Poland. I want to smoke cigarettes with Anna Akhmatova and hang out at bars with Mikhail Bulgakov and eat roasted goose with Isaac Babel. Most of all, though, I want to stand with Osip Mandelstam on the north shore of the Black Sea and hear him tell the other half of those old Greek myths, of the lives and legends of the people down in Georgia, where Jason went to look for that Golden Fleece. I want to hear him recite Dante in the original (preferably not while pacing, barefoot, the snowy gulag yard, of course, as legend describes his final days) and gossip about his friends over dinner.
- Nikolai Gogol. How can you not want to meet the man that wrote “The Nose” and “The Overcoat“?
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky. How can you not want to meet the man that wrote The Bros. K? (Though it’s true I like The Double just as much.)
- Leo Tolstoy. I get that you can not want to meet the crazy religious zealot the Count turned into later in life, but if you could get him before like 1880, that’d obviously be the raddest. But I mean, it’s Tolstoy, what am I gonna be, picky?
- I’d like to spend time with Emily Dickinson, but I’m not so sure she’d like to spend time with me, and the whole thing’d probably be a bit awkward. Nonetheless, I’d go up and knock.
- I feel this way about E. A. Poe, too, except I expect I’d be the uncomfortable (read: creeped out) one.
- All those American and European bastards hanging out on la rive gauche in the Teens and Twenties. I don’t imagine I’d actually like Hemingway very much, or Scott Fitzgerald (though a decade ago I’d’ve given anything to go drinking with them), but I sure would like to walk around Montparnasse and Montmartre back then. And to see the hillsides of the latter covered with windmills fifty years before that? Get out.
- On the other hand, speaking of American authors on the West Bank, I am pretty sure I would like to hang out with James Baldwin, forever. The kick I’m on rereading him, he should be at the top of this list.
- Although I certainly would like to hang with Goethe, and E. T. A. Hoffman, when it comes to ze Germans I think it’s a toss-up between Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. If the latter’s mother Júlia was gonna be around, though, it’s Mann all day.
- Speaking of the Brazil-Central Europe connection, Clarice Lispector would ab-so-lute-ly be on this list.
- As would Marguerite Duras, who’s always paired in my mind with Lispector. Probably because I was introduced to them on the same syllabus. But, oh, Duras, Duras. (♫ The past is all ours to see. Whatever you’d need, I’d be. Oh, Duras, Duras. ♫)
- Gabriel García Márquez, when he was living in Cartagena, writing in the morning, reading through the heat of the afternoon, and walking the streets in the evening.
- I know Thomas Pynchon isn’t dead so I don’t need a time machine to go visit him, but I would need an introduction, which in his case is just as fantastical and unlikely as a time machine, so.
- Same with Tim Winton—man’s alive and well, but I want to hang out on the beaches south of Perth with him in the mid-Seventies, when he was a kid. I’d probably pass on the cave-diving, but otherwise I can’t think of many things I’d rather do than spend a few weeks with a waterman like Winton. Breath, dirt music, cloudstreet, The Riders, THE TURNING (below)—if you haven’t read him, you need to start.
And that, my friends, is the list.
Where do you want to go? Who do you want to visit?
Or does time travel seems ridiculous and pointless and futile?